We should be concerned about the casualisation of full-time work | Greg Jericho

This year the ACTU aims to fight on a number of hot button issues in its “Change the Rules” campaign. Among the issues is one which sits right at the centre of the flexible work debate, and one that has quickly become heated – casual work. And while employer groups may be on safe territory arguing that the level of overall casual work has been flat for some years now, the recent increase in full-time employees and young people working casually highlights that this is not an issue that can be ignored.

In an interview with the Australian, secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Sally McManus recently said “one of the key things we want to change for working people is turning around or reversing the casualisation of jobs”. She said she would lobby for a new definition of casual work that would include workers who have a “reasonable expectation of ongoing work” and who are completing regular shifts.

One of the problems for the ACTU is that while the suggestion that 40% of Australian workers are in insecure work is valid, it is not an issue that has actually been getting worse.

Currently there are around 7.5 million workers who are employed in ongoing permanent positions, either full-time or part-time. That leaves a bit over 4 million workers who are either casual employees or those who own/manage businesses – either incorporated or unincorporated.

Over the past decade, the percentage of workers who are employees has, if anything, grown – from around 79% in the early 1990s to around 82%:

So while there may be issues around those who run their own business, for the most part, the issue of insecure work lies with casual employees. And yet here the story is not straightforward.

Around 2.5 million people in Australia are employed on a casual basis. A sizeable number to be sure, but the percentage of employees who are casually employed has stayed relatively stable for nearly 20 years:

The reason the story is complex is that since the 1990s recession, Australia’s workforce has changed substantially.

More men now work part-time than in the past and more women now work full-time. As part-time work is more likely to involve casual employment, the proportion of women working in casual jobs has fallen, while the proportion of men working as such has risen.

So in some ways, talk about the rising casualisation of work is mostly talking about men.

But does that mean there are no concerns? Well no, but again the issue is complex. The reality is that you are most likely to work casual when you are young:

And we need to be wary of assuming that all casual work is bad. The problem with this issue is the anecdote generally holds sway. Employer groups who favour casual work and would like to see more of it love to talk of the casually employed university student. On the other side, the example is generally of a mother working casually for years, unable to get job security or carer’s leave.

The reality is casual work encompasses all types.

Just over 40% of casual employees have been with their current employer for less than a year, compared to around 15% of permanent employees. And yet while half of permanent workers have been with their current employer for more than five years, so too have 17% of casual workers:

Is it bad for someone to be casual for so long? Again, yes and no. Much as I prefer the data over the anecdote, in my working life I have worked for a number of businesses casually for more than four years – some I wished could have been permanent, others I was quite happy with the arrangement.

And here the data suggests a similar complex story. In the 2014 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (Hilda) survey, men were generally less satisfied working casually than in a permanent position.

Women, on the other hand, actually had a slightly higher level of job satisfaction if they worked casually than if they were employed permanently:

But there is certainly less security for casual workers.

Around 19% of casual workers do not expect to be with their same employer in 12 months time, compared to just 7% of permanently employed workers. And yet the reasons why both sets of workers expect to leave their current job again reveal the complexity of the issue.

Just over half of both permanent and casual employees expect to leave their job in the next 12 months because they want to change jobs or are seeking other work.

The differences lie elsewhere – casual workers are less likely to be about to retire, but are much more likely to be returning to study, travelling or leaving work for family reasons (which most likely involve child care).

The other big difference is that casual workers are much more likely to be working in a seasonal job or temporary job, which is not surprising nor particularly worrying given such work – for example, fruit picking or working hospitality during peak holiday periods – is what casual work is best suited for:

But before employer groups rub their hands contentedly there remain two critical areas of concern.

While the proportion of casual work has not risen overall, where it has noticeably become more prominent is for full-time work. Since 2013, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of full-time casual employees – from 10.6% of full-time employees to 12.1% – equivalent to around 106,000 extra people working casually:

The other big issue is younger workers. In 2013 when I wrote on casual work, I noted concern in the sizeable increase in youth workers employed casually. Since then the problem has only grown worse.

In the past 10 years, the percentage of employees under 25 who work casually has risen from 47% to nearly 54%:

Casual work is always a bit of a hot button issue – with everyone ready to let fly the anecdote to support their cause. The reality is much more complex. Casual work is valued by employers and employees, but it is also at risk of becoming much more entrenched in a manner that is unlikely to benefit workers.

While it is not surprising that youth workers are more likely to work casually than older workers, the increasing prevalence of younger workers being employed casually has long-term issues if such work is not of the seasonal or “while studying” variety but is taking place of previously permanent positions.

If this leads to the entrenchment of such arrangements as workers move into their prime earning years, then the problems become quickly exacerbated – something that looks to be occurring given the recent increase in full-time workers (especially male) now being employed casually rather than permanently.

Given full-time workers are invariably the main bread winner of a household, the lack of wage security, lack of ability to bargain for a wage rise, and the inability to access leave would have major societal implications should that trend continue.